An Elephant in the Room
In my previous post (which I have renamed so that this flows more clearly from it), I observed a growing crisis for progressivism, as people across the political spectrum are rejecting its form of discourse. Within this post, I will venture into far more controversial territory. I will speak directly about some issues that we commonly politely skirt. It is not my intent to give offence, although I appreciate that may easily be taken. For this reason, I request your patience and charity. If we never talk directly about such issues, we will forever be falling into the same problems and little progress will be made.
There is an elephant in the room of our social discourse, one salient fact that goes a long way to explaining the tensions between different forms of social and political discourse and their relative sites and means of power and influence. However, this fact is a fact that progressive discourse necessarily dissembles, because it is taboo:
Men and women are different and their differences have an immense impact upon the climate of our social and political discourse.
Jonathan Haidt, writing on Heterodox Academy, describes a striking experience he had when addressing high school students about the importance of open and challenging discourse in the educational environment.
[T]he discussion began, and it was the most unremittingly hostile questioning I’ve ever had. I don’t mind when people ask hard or critical questions, but I was surprised that I had misread the audience so thoroughly. My talk had little to do with gender, but the second question was “So you think rape is OK?” Like most of the questions, it was backed up by a sea of finger snaps—the sort you can hear in the infamous Yale video, where a student screams at Prof. Christakis to “be quiet” and tells him that he is “disgusting.” I had never heard the snapping before. When it happens in a large auditorium it is disconcerting. It makes you feel that you are facing an angry and unified mob—a feeling I have never had in 25 years of teaching and public speaking.
After the first dozen questions I noticed that not a single questioner was male. I began to search the sea of hands asking to be called on and I did find one boy, who asked a question that indicated that he too was critical of my talk. But other than him, the 200 or so boys in the audience sat silently.
After the Q&A, I got a half-standing ovation: almost all of the boys in the room stood up to cheer. And after the crowd broke up, a line of boys came up to me to thank me and shake my hand. Not a single girl came up to me afterward.
The gender divide startled him. After the talk, he led a discussion, within which he seemed to make some progress. In the article, he describes the fact that the boys experience immense social pressure to self-censor, a pressure exerted by the girls:
That night, after I gave a different talk to an adult audience, there was a reception at which I spoke with some of the parents. Several came up to me to tell me that their sons had told them about the day’s events. The boys finally had a way to express and explain their feelings of discouragement. Their parents were angry to learn about how their sons were being treated and… there’s no other word for it, bullied into submission by the girls.
It seems to me that, if we are to speak appropriately about them, the dysfunctional phenomena of our discourse that I have discussed in my previous posts are in large measure failures of healthy forms of gendered socialization. Incidentally, this is exactly the sort of problem we should expect to find in a society that ideologically resists the reality of gender and presumes that it isn’t an insistent natural reality that must be negotiated rather than dissimulated. Though we may hit the nerve of the sacred value of equality, homogeneous and indiscriminate inclusion in speaking of it, the integrity of our discourse itself depends upon careful handling of the relations between and within the sexes.
Men, Women, and Social Leverage
The bullying of boys into silence by girls might seem like an unusual phenomenon to those who have bought uncritically into certain prevailing notions of patriarchy and who are inclined to think in terms of a unilateral dominance of males in society. Yet, while men generally do dominate in positions of overt and direct public power and authority, women often exert considerably more indirect and relational power in their communities and societies. We just need to be more alert to the reality that is directly in front of us.
There is an anti-feminist trope that men who support feminism, especially stronger forms of it, just want to get laid. This is misleading and unfair, I believe. A minority of men genuinely do hold deep and sincere feminist convictions. This said, however, I think that most men rightly recognize their male peers’ expressed positions on the subject of feminism tend to shift considerably, depending upon the contexts that they are in and on the sorts of relationships that they have to women, and that males whose position in their particular social order is naturally precarious tend to be the most affirming of all. It should not be presumed that men’s disguise of their true sentiments arises from a manipulative hostility towards women on their part. Indeed, it is often quite the opposite: men hide their true sentiments because they care about women and don’t want to expose them to viewpoints that they might find threatening. Most men genuinely care about women, yet a great many are ambivalent about or unpersuaded by much of feminist thought.
Women may just be the most powerful force for preference falsification known to man, chiefly because what women think and feel towards them generally matters immensely to men, and by no means primarily for cynical sexual ends. Men know this all too well from their own and their peers’ behaviour and may distrust men who wholeheartedly adopt the favoured opinions of their partners or of women in their peer groups. They also know that preference falsifiers generally grow weary of their masks and appreciate candid contexts in which they can be relieved of their burden; these are typically male contexts, outside of women’s view. Seeing how men typically act in these less policed contexts, they are sceptical of those who insist they are not falsifying preferences in contexts where social expectations are heavily imposed.
When the chips are down in a gender-integrated society, men’s primary loyalties usually tend to default to women: to their mothers, to their wives, to their daughters, to their sisters, to their girlfriends, to their female friends. If a man feels that a woman in his life is threatened by another man, he will typically rally to her defence. And this is as it ought to be. Men are naturally highly protective of and closely bound to the women in their lives.
Women’s power is a social and associative power, one resulting from the fact that they have closer and more immediate relationships than men—not just with other women, but with men too. This gives them immense social leverage. Women are the glue of a society, the force that binds societies’ members together. Men tend to form larger, shallower, weaker, and looser networks, with more agonistic and combative interactions. Women, by contrast, tend to form stronger, more intimate, more emotional, and deeper bonds. Their relational bonds are far more load-bearing than men’s.
Women do have a very great deal of competition among themselves, but it is generally indirect and occurs beneath the radar. The combative form of male competition is overt and on the surface: men are rough with each other and engage in forms of ritual combat, often as a form of bonding. Women’s competition, by contrast, is largely carried out by such means as pressure to conform under the threat of social ostracization, leveraging male power to their advantage, recruiting males to attack people they dislike or rally to their aid, forming friendships or relationships with people of power or influence, gossip, cattiness, sassiness, sabotaging other people’s reputations, veiled antagonisms in friendships, etc. It is so successfully dissembled that remarkably little is said about the fact, for instance, that the majority of—and much of the most damaging—misogynistic abuse is instigated by women, even in cases where men are involved. Within a mixed group, men would rarely be able to bully a woman without permission from or the instigation of other women in the group.
Nosedive, the first episode of the most recent season of the TV show Black Mirror, depicts a dystopian world driven by veiled relational and reputational competition, illustrating the dynamic of a toxic form of feminine competition very well. As everyone rates their interpersonal encounters, producing a score which determines their social status and societal privileges, a desperate competition to gain and maintain one’s precarious place in the right crowds and the societal pecking order occurs, all veiled beneath the cloying yet entirely superficial niceness by which the battle is waged.
Compared to men’s intrasexual relationships, women’s relationships among themselves can have remarkable emotional and relational intensity, something perhaps most clearly seen in the ‘drama’ of their adolescent friendships. This subtle and fraught world of emotionally charged friendships is somewhat alien to most teenage boys, whose relationships with their peers tend to occur almost entirely on the surface, requiring little divining of the underlying emotional dynamics. Men are often fairly oblivious about how to handle emotionally intense relationships (a fact that may only become apparent to some after they marry) and, with their surefootedness in this rocky terrain, women can be both frustrated by men’s inability to function as nimbly as they can and also able to use their greater ability in this area to their considerable advantage.
As when people think about power they think primarily in terms of overt and direct power, it is easy to presume that men monopolize power. Yet, when one looks closer and deeper, the reality is considerably more complicated: the men may occupy most of the prominent positions of power, but their primary loyalties are often to the women closest to them. The man, as Chesterton observed, may be the head, but he may often only be the figurehead. He may have the direct power, but the woman may have most of the leverage.
In 2007, the late Christopher Hitchens wrote a provocative piece for Vanity Fair, entitled ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’. Within it he argued that men were the funnier of the sexes and that it wasn’t even close. When it comes to being laugh-out-loud hilarious, men excel. Men need to excel, Hitchens argued, if they are to impress women. Men’s dominance in this arena arises in part from the fact that men are more prepared than the fairer sex to laugh at another’s expense, and to explore the ugly, unpleasant, and offensive dimensions of life that might offend a woman’s polite sensibilities, but which are a vast reservoir of fine comedic material. Unsurprisingly, male comedians dominate on the stand-up circuit, with relatively few women, disproportionately lesbians, to balance them out.
I believe that Hitchens was deeply mistaken in his judgment, though not entirely erring in his observations. Yes, men do naturally tend to dominate on the stand-up circuit. It is an aggressive and pugilistic context of discourse, played to a larger audience, with a significant element of risk involved, and typically involving frequent violations of the laws of politeness. Men will naturally come to the fore in such realms. However, the limited presence of funny women in that realm is a poor argument for the claim that women are the least funny of the sexes. Women’s humour is more likely to be encountered in the dense social environment than in the highly aerated arena of overt verbal combat. Women’s wit is generally played for much smaller audiences, and can display acuity of psychological perception and marked verbal adroitness. Indeed, those who are the objects of women’s humour may often be oblivious to the fact, as the wit is designed to be stealthy and recognizable only to the initiated. It is a means of managing and negotiating denser relational settings. It is hard to display on the stand-up stage, but is much more visible in the intimacy of prose or in the more private conversations at a social gathering. Hitchens was also mistaken if he thought that women are less funny out of niceness. Men may be the masters of insensitive and offensive comedy but few men can manage the exquisite cruelty of some women’s spiteful or snarky wit.
Jane Austen is a good example of a female novelist of comic genius, yet her more feminine cast of humour escapes many—especially male—readers who are inattentive to it. Her humour involves sharply observed social manners and relations. The comic voices in her work—the social satire of the veiled narrator, the gently deflationary characterizations, the sardonic humour of Mr Bennet and the vivacious wit of his daughter Elizabeth, the hilariously caustic remarks of a Lady Susan Vernon—are often subtle and sly, and occasionally merciless. Austen’s wit is about the shrewd observation and negotiation of the dense web of social relations in society. It puts people in their place, often gently, yet sometimes more forcefully. It can puncture prevailing social pretensions. She employs her wit as a subtle yet potentially devastating power. Peter Leithart’s description of her work is perceptive: ‘At her best, Jane Austen wrote out of laughter. Her art came from the impish glee of a precocious teenager amused by the follies of the world around her, wanting to get us in on the joke. Her final voice is modulated, deepened, matured by life and its losses; but it is still the voice of the Juvenalia, the joyous voice of Pride and Prejudice, the voice of the narrator of Emma and of the comic passage in the unfinished Sanditon.’
The giggling of teenage girls, who almost always seem to be sharing some silly private joke among themselves (a joke that the viewer may well fear to be at his own expense), can often be the target of the derision of those who deem this a childish behaviour. Yet it is here that the seeds of a mature feminine form of humour are often to be found. Such a form of humour can be acutely observant and slyly satirical of the social environment, and adept at manipulating and navigating it with verbal wit. Those who have mastered such wit are able to use it to bind people tightly together in the enjoyment of the private joke, to destroy the social power of an adversary, to put people in their place, to operate on two different levels of conversation, or to come out on top in the little conversational games whereby one can manoeuvre and gain social leverage. Where some men might throw a punch, many women know that the carefully engineered put-down can be far more shattering.
Manliness as Defence
On account of women’s closer bonds with their male peers in mixed groups, men recognize that any of their male peers is potentially a turncoat, someone who would willingly betray men and compromise his convictions in order to retain social standing in mixed society. One of several purposes that ‘manliness’ plays is that of signalling trustworthiness and loyalty to other men, assuring men that, although their primary loyalties are with the women in their lives, they will seek to uphold their loyalty to other men and to the greater demands of truth and justice. Their peers’ manliness provides assurance to men that they are dependable and trustworthy and that they will not betray them for the sake of their standing in mixed society, where men can be vulnerable.
Men cannot trust men whose primary concern is what women think, or who demonstrate little concern for what other men think. Such men will routinely falsify their preferences and betray other men and the male group in order to advance in the favour of women. Men like this cannot be relied upon to show appropriate loyalty to other men, nor to speak the truth when those actions might displease women.
Manliness signals trustworthiness to other men because manliness is about a man’s capacity, determination, and character as—and, most importantly, his commitment to be—a man among men. Manliness represents the traits that men desire and admire in other men. Manliness can’t really be cultivated in mixed company, but is learnt in male groups. Although women typically find masculinity desirable, they can find its strong expression in mixed company threatening to their status and so frequently discourage or proscribe it. Mixed company is a realm of politeness and niceness, where men have to rein themselves in and hold themselves back. If a man throws his weight around in mixed company, women will commonly expect other men to take him down for them.
Manly Society and its Code of Honour
Men and women don’t cease to act as men and women simply because we have subscribed to a gender-neutral ideology. Traditionally the academy and the world of politics were male worlds, operating according to the norms and the natural tendencies of male sociality. Even when women were involved, they were operating in a world that largely operated according to male rules.
As male realms, they were agonistic realms, realms of ritual combat and competition. The code according to which they operated was a manly code, a code that emphasized honour, assertion, confidence, agency, strength, and mastery. Other participants in these realms were expected to function as rhetorical, ideological, and political combatants, expected to fight their corner and challenge others, yet also to be subject to the rigorous stress-testing of the combative environment. For this you need to have strength and courage. You need to be assertive, forthright, and exhibit mastery of your subject and your own self. They were expected to function with honour and to respect the honour of other combatants, to be concerned for their reputation as men in the group. There was also a premium placed upon mastery. Such discourses are hierarchical in character, usually according the highest honour and prominence to those who most exemplify these virtues. If you can’t prove your mastery, you must yield to others who can. The most adept and able dominate in such realms.
It is often supposed that the concept of ‘being a man’ chiefly stands in contrast to that of being a woman. However, the greater opposition is probably that between the man and the boy or the unmanly. One must become a man through a process of socialization into strength, honour, courage, and mastery. This is not to suggest that weaker men do not have a place in such groups. Men typically want all of their peers to be socialized into a form of manliness, even though they often know that this manliness may well take a less pronounced form in some. There are a great many different varieties of manliness and its virtues and perhaps the majority do not require us to conform to the most stereotypical extreme male patterns of behaviour and appearance. Codes of manly honour often involve rejection of the practice of preying upon those weaker than oneself. Indeed, many male groups can be surprisingly sensitive to weaker members of the group. Having a strong and healthy bond of manliness is in all of our interests and men will often go out of their way to ensure that every boy is able to make the passage. Sadly, there are many cases where male groups are brutal towards those weaker members who are struggling to secure their place. One of the best ways to avoid such cruelty is to establish healthy intergenerational practices of socialization into manliness, rather than leaving boys to accomplish the transition alone.
On account of natural male instincts, male realms are exposed to several dangers. Perhaps one of the most extreme of these can be seen in the historic phenomenon of duels, whereby (overwhelmingly) men sought to defend their honour against perceived insults. While duels could be undertaken in response to things that seem to us to be the pettiest of provocations, it is important to recognize that the honour that was at stake really mattered, as it represented one’s standing in male society and helped to preserve the security of men and their families. If challenges to one’s honour were allowed to pass unchallenged one would render oneself and one’s family vulnerable to predation and assault. One’s honour and one’s willingness to fight for it really matter in a society without strong institutions of law and order, as it discourages people from mistreating or attacking you and those close to you.
Nevertheless, duels revealed men at their most hormonal and territorial. The stupidity of duels and their wastefulness of life needed to be escaped. Developing a culture of dignity to replace a culture of honour (see the discussion in this paper) was a necessary means by which the unruly tendencies were put in check. This culture of dignity required the establishment of institutions of law and order to provide security and resolution of disputes that didn’t depend upon one’s honour and capacity for vengeance. Likewise, institutions developed structures by which the benefits of combative male forms of discourse could be maintained, while placing checks to ensure that they did not collapse into violence. Interactions in the House of Commons, for instance, provide a good illustration of this. Discourse is mediated by the speaker and honorifics—‘the Right Honourable Gentleman’, etc.—are employed in order to guard against dishonour. Moderation of debates and discussions can also put a check upon the tendency of male conversation to fall into pointless ego battles. Masculinity needs to be housetrained for the sake of civilized discourse.
Despite these dangers, male contexts of discourse come with some very considerable advantages. A gendered manly code helps to regulate discourse. In the realm of discourse, a man is expected to have the strength to push his position and to weather challenges to it. For a man to use the ploy of weakness to escape honest and direct debate is dishonourable. Although it is dishonourable for a man to pick on the weak and on non-combatants, if you strongly assert a position you are to be regarded as a combatant and must stand up for yourself or find some advocate to do so. If neither you nor anyone else is willing or able to prove the strength of your position in argument, the position forfeits the right to public recognition and respect.
A man is expected to have the courage to be forthright, to speak his mind, and to expose himself to his opposition. He is expected to fight, to expose himself to risk, and to be prepared to sacrifice for the sake of something greater than himself. In argument, a man is expected to show the courage of assertion, to put himself on the line and genuinely to risk public loss. In discourse, a man is also to be held to a standard of mastery, to be tested and, if he should fail, to suffer some measure of a loss of standing.
Most importantly, manly discourse is governed by honour, which holds men responsible to display these manly virtues in argument at risk of losing face and standing among their peers. You must not ‘chicken out’ of an argument or shrink from engagement with a challenger. One must not use dishonourable ploys or means to avoid a direct encounter or defeat your opponent with underhand means. You must stand for your position when it faces really strong challenge, or both it and you will forfeit honour. In making an assertion you must submit to the rules of combat and accept the status of a combatant. You must recognize the honour of other combatants and not expect to misrepresent or mistreat others with impunity. When your very honour is challenged (for instance, when someone doesn’t just challenge a particular position that you make, but accuses you of academic fraud), it is essential that you stand for it. Now, all of this is moderated to some extent by structures of ‘law and order’ governing our various discourses that resolve certain disputes and challenges. However, for the most part, the culture of public discourse has operated according to a culture and code of manly honour.
This culture is particularly important when it comes to prominent leadership: a code of honour, calling for the virtues of manliness, gives force to our expectation that leaders in particular be exposed to challenge and prove the strength of their positions or forfeit their status. The authority of leaders cannot easily be abstracted from their demonstration of the virtues of manliness: strength, honour, mastery, and courage. Manly authority doesn’t reside simply in offices, but arises from the public perception that a man possesses such virtues, especially when they are exercised in the service of goodness, truth, or beauty. Where a leader clearly lacks such virtues, people will not regard him as having much authority, even though he may enjoy office. Office and command without the weight of some form of the traditionally manly virtues—whether the person exercising it is male or female—can seem bossy. It is the sort of leadership that is perceived to lack the strength to underwrite its claims to people’s submission.
This male culture I have described also tends to establish a sort of heterotopic location for its conflicts—an arena, a battlefield, the pitch, etc. The location is set apart from the more intimate locations of daily life and society. It is a realm of personal jeopardy into which only combatants can venture. In entering into this arena, everyone is expected to play by the rules, to put himself on the line, and to be able to give and to take fierce challenge.
A Shift in Our Culture of Discourse
This culture of agonistic discourse implicitly upheld by the code of manly honour has served us well in many respects. It is an integral element of our traditional culture of ‘free speech’. However, over the past few decades our realms of political and academic discourse have become mixed contexts, which has thrown a great deal into confusion and disarray. The fact that we have become ideologically hampered in our ability to talk about the differences made by sexual difference has greatly limited our capacity to deal with these changes.
Where the front lines of political and academic discourse have clearly been regarded as male worlds, women have generally, perhaps with minor accommodations, proved themselves using the same implicitly manly code of honour that men have. In the process, they have often brought their own particular strengths to the table, improving the quality of the discourse, pushed back against certain unhelpful male tendencies, and tempered the unruly excesses of manliness. The agonistic tendencies of male discourse, if not well tamed, can hamstring rather than empower our conversations. Instead of probing and testing discourse, we are left with blinkered and braying belligerence and tiresome games of one-upmanship. Instead of conversations that elicit the strengths of many different perspectives, a few bullying voices dominate the floor. A concern for the truth has on many occasions been eclipsed by the pursuit of ego. Our political and academic conversations have so often benefited and grown in their integrity from the ways in which women, while preserving the strengths of male modes of discourse and observing a similar code of honour, have pushed back against our less helpful tendencies and complemented more typically male models of discourse with more collaborative and inclusive forms of discourse.
However, with respect to the specific tasks of political and academic discourse, women’s more natural social tendencies do not merely add strengths, but have also introduced serious weaknesses. We should not expect that the realms of politics and the academy can introduce large numbers of women without undergoing more fundamental cultural and institutional change in the process. Women’s schools and women’s studies are ground zero for the current issues with free speech in the campus. This is not a coincidence.
The underlying problem is not primarily with the ideologies that are being taught in these locations. Rather, the ideologies often seem to function as a rationalization of more naturally female inclinations in discourse and socialization.
Women do not naturally gravitate to a manly code of honour. The social virtues that are elevated in women’s groups tend to be things like inclusion, supportiveness, empathy, care, and equality. Through his and his students’ research on the subject of ‘social justice warriors’, Jordan Peterson has identified that it refers to a real phenomenon in the world, but also suggests that it is specifically related to a maternal instinct: ‘the political landscape is being viewed through the lens of a hyper-concerned mother for her infant.’
This instinct causes all sorts of problems when expressed in an academic or political context. It infantilizes perceived victim, minority, or vulnerable groups (women, persons of colour, LGBT persons, disabled persons, etc.), perceiving them as lacking in agency and desperately in need of care and protection. When persons from such groups enter into the realm of political or academic discourse, they must be protected at all costs. Unsurprisingly, this completely undermines the manly code that formerly held, whereby anyone entering onto the field of discourse did so at their own risk, as a combatant and thereby as a legitimate target for challenge and honourable attack. The manly code calls us all to play to strength, whereas the maternal instinct calls us all radically to accommodate to weakness.
The opening up of the field of front line discourse to people with a non-combatant or non-manly status causes severe problems for men too. Men are naturally inclined to protect women and generally seek to please them. While men bond with their male peers through rough interactions, they do not generally do the same with women. Men spend their whole lives learning to hold themselves back in female company, learning how to pull their punches, how not to speak their full mind, how to avoid giving offence. This second nature can’t simply be put on hold, but must actively be resisted, if women are to be treated as full peers in such settings.
So many men who proclaim the equality of women instinctively resort to ‘white knighting’—rushing to women’s aid—when they see a woman being firmly challenged by a man. As C.S. Lewis once observed, ‘battles are ugly when women fight.’ Unless we are mindful in our handling of them and the men and women who are admitted to them, arguments can become ugly in such conditions too. Honour may be abandoned and matters can become bitter and personal. The eye is taken off the ball of truth and argument and men turn on other men, rather than allow another man to beat a woman. While men are expected to put themselves on the line in debate and risk significant loss, many have a visceral resistance to seeing women experience the same thing.
There is no ideological pill that will easily deliver us from such deeply rooted gendered instincts. Indeed, part of the irony here is that the men who are most stereotypically protective of women within such contexts are often the men who push the hardest for them to be included within them, lest they be wounded by the implication that they are weak. As I discussed earlier, men’s bonds to the women in their lives tend to take precedence over their relations to other men. Protecting women and their feelings frequently takes priority over truth and honour in argument.
Female Conflict in Discourse
Earlier on in this post, I discussed more typical female forms of conflict, whose less direct and overt character contrasts with male forms of conflict. Revisiting these forms of conflict at this point, I think that we can see that a great many of the issues complained about by those pushing for free speech on campuses have all of the hallmarks of female forms of conflict (perhaps especially their forms of intrasexual conflict).
People pushing for free speech complain about stifling climates of discourse on campuses, which dangle the threat of social ostracization over those who do not rigorously affirm and uphold politically correct values. They complain about the sacred status of those groups designated as victims and the way in which they are presented as immune to challenge and lacking in their own agency. They complain about the way that weakness and vulnerability are exaggerated and weaponized. They complain about the ways that people’s reputations are attacked and academics are blacklisted. They complain about the ways that speakers articulating unwelcome viewpoints are ‘no-platformed’. They complain about the ways in which values of safety and inclusion are used to rule out challenge. They complain about the way that the campus isn’t treated as heterotopic, as a realm set apart for ideological engagement and challenge. They complain about the ways that campus authorities are constantly appealed to for protection against others. They complain about the rise of a culture of victimhood, coddling, and the radical infantilization of perceived victim groups. They complain about the college’s loss of robust academic authority in the public’s perception and of the manner in which it has come to be perceived as morally hectoring.
Again, we should be paying attention to where this behaviour is especially concentrated: in contexts dominated by women and LGBT persons, contexts where the traditional norms of manliness are the least operative. This is not, I believe, principally some bizarre product of a radical Marcusian ideology. Rather, the ideologies are almost certainly rationalizations of the social dynamics that naturally characterize the dominant demographics in those realms. Conversely, women self-select into realms that are characterized by a lot of agonistic discourse at much lower rates (although, of course, the causality runs in both directions here: realms that are heavily male dominated will tend to be agonistic in their actions and marked by some code of manliness).
We should also recognize why so many men in particular instinctively react against this developing campus culture: not only is it perceived to be academically bankrupt, but it is also dishonourable, in flagrant and wilful violation of the tenets of manliness. It renders the campus a realm of the unmanly and emasculates the men within it. Even if it cannot be articulated as such, it is experienced as a gendered colonization of a realm that traditionally largely operated according to male norms in a manner that renders those norms inoperative.
Our negotiation of the reality of sexual difference will have immediate bearing upon the integrity of key social contexts of discourse. Of course, the intellectual work of the academy is by no means reducible to mere agonistic discourse, any more than the work of the courtroom is exhausted by vigorous cross-examination. However, the stress-testing of ideas through contestation and challenge is absolutely non-negotiable if we are to produce an academy with integrity and intellectual authority, an academy that will be regarded as suited to exert societal leadership. Just as the maximization of agonistic discourse is stifling of the intellectual life of the university, so its elimination will enable the metastasization of unchecked ideology throughout the organs of our social discourse.
Social Media and the New Context of Political Discourse
It is imperative that we take account of the cultural changes brought about by the rise of social media. I have written upon these at considerable length in the past. One of the central points that I have made is that social media bring us too close together. Traditional forms of public discourse are effective in large measure through differentiating their participants: through status, office, time, physicality, intermediation, ritual, place, position, etc., etc.
Public discourse traditionally occurred in highly aerated and differentiated discursive environments, such as courtrooms and debating or parliamentary chambers. Yet online we are all placed into a more immediate contact with each other, in a ‘saturated social environment.’ Within this realm we are all peers and contemporaries, without differences in rank or station. It is often a gender-neutralizing and egalitarian realm, where every voice is equally valid. Online we also all function on the crest of the latest breaking wave.
Millennials are often castigated as a generation for their narcissism, self-preoccupation, and other such traits. However, in our defence, it should be noted that we are the canaries in the coal mine of a new ecology of society discourse, especially younger millennials. Many of us have been using online social media since high school. The rise of social media is akin to the first introduction of a mirror to a society in which people had never properly seen their own faces. We are now existentially involved in an online spectacle on social media, where we must rigorously perform our identities, acutely aware of the fact that we are constantly exposed to judgment.
Existing in such a context elevates our social anxieties. It fractures or overwhelms former contexts of solitude and withdrawal from society. It creates a socially saturated order and limits the possibility of heterotopic discourse. When people complain about the need for a ‘safe space’, it is important to bear this new social reality in mind. Where there are few genuine sites of retreat from society and where challenging discourse no longer can be limited to a heterotopic arena, people will naturally feel much more threatened by people who strongly disagree with them. This is perhaps especially the case for young women, who are far more naturally attuned to and involved in the ‘social’ dimensions of social and connected media (for instance, generally sending considerably more texts than their male peers). Without a ‘safe space’, they are denied a realm of care and social conflict becomes total. Their concerns on this front should not merely be dismissed.
The Hyper-Connected Political Class
The mind of the new cultural elite is being formed in the echo chambers of Twitter and Facebook. Their culturally elite status isn’t a matter of wealth or even of class as traditionally defined, but is a matter of holding the prestige faith of progressive liberalism, something that is closely bound to college education. Many poor students and journalists nonetheless belong to this elite class.
Twitter is the small talk of an interminable fancy dinner party, the cultural terrarium within which an internationalist political class grows. On Twitter, what one says about things is the most important thing; substance dissolves into speech—unrelenting speech. On Twitter, real world events and realities exist chiefly as props whereby a privileged class can negotiate their internal relations, where news is fodder for phatic speech. Twitter brings this class so much closer together—into constant and incessant correspondence—yet thereby increasingly detaches them from the rest of the population.
The closer that Twitter and Facebook bring this internationalist progressive class to each other, the more that this class starts to function as a ‘dense society’, characterized by intense peer pressure and a fixation upon how one appears to others. It is a new ‘village’ where public shaming can nuke a person’s reputation and career, where the circulation of rumours and gossip holds immense destructive power, which can be strategically deployed as threat or sanction. It is also a site where the crowd itself serves as an agency that can be appealed to in order to intervene when someone feels threatened.
These dynamics will have the effect of turning the political classes in upon themselves in a profound self-absorption. The conversation will come to be dominated by those issues that are most serviceable for managing the political classes’ internal relations and self-expression and maintaining their standing, rather than by the issues that really are the most important and pressing in the wider society.
Symbolism will tend to replace substance. Given the choice between talking about the compounding crises of automation in the Rust Belt or transgender bathrooms, they will choose the latter. Given the political classes’ turning in upon themselves, it shouldn’t surprise us in the least that the last few years have been dominated by precisely the sort of primarily symbolic social issues that are most useful for virtue signalling within the elite class (same-sex marriage, fights over transgender bathrooms, getting the first female president, Black Lives Matter protests, etc.). Online we also have short attention spans, which can produce series of polarizing outrages and emotionally gratifying causes, few of which require any grasp of the larger picture.
Even when politicians aren’t themselves heavy participants in the Twitter conversation, the people who surround them will be. Unsurprisingly, many others can be profoundly alienated by the elites’ self-preoccupation and prioritization of symbolic issues that lend themselves to Manichaean posturing over complex and substantial ones that require sustained thought and intense concrete engagement in the outside world. Iain Martin, writing in Reaction, interviews one such person:
“I don’t like Trump, but look at what is happening in this country. People have had enough. Imagine you live in Michigan or Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Pennsylvania, or Florida, or North Carolina. You’re getting by ok but it’s fraught with worry and even the good months seem like a respite from it all going, what do you Brits say? tits up. One of you has two jobs. Your neighbour’s wife works at Walmart but that’s getting eaten alive by Amazon and delivery companies. What are your kids going to do for a living? College is expensive and then what? The companies they might work for won’t offer them anything like security. It’s tough out there. And what’s the biggest news story of the last year on TV here other than the election? Other than Black Live Matters protests.”
I shake my head. I don’t know.
“Transgender restrooms. Transgender bathrooms. All the time. Crazy protests on campus. All the time. Crazy, angry, entitled, spoilt people shouting on your TV about justice and trigger warnings and transgender stuff and hating America and how bad the country is when they’ve no idea what life is really about. While tens of millions of people in those states have real concerns about jobs, pay, about the economy, about their children. And this is the next battle that the radicals want to fight? Abolishing men and women? No. Equality yes. This crap? No. And eventually you think: what the hell is going on in this country? And you vote for the one guy that says enough.”
Bernie Sanders is correct: the progressive liberal elite is incapable of talking to the working class, and this is why. The working class may not be privy to the heart of this conversation on social media, but they see its effect on the national conversation in the newspapers, TV shows, and, most particularly, in the silence upon the issues that affect them the most. The more closely interconnected the political class is within itself, the more disconnected it is from the rest of the country. Twitter hogs the bandwidth of the political conversation, preventing other things from being talked about.
The Gendering of the Political Conversation
As social media changes the environment within which political discourse operates, the dynamics of the discourse shifts. Traditionally, political discourse occurred within the heterotopic arena of male agonism, a realm set apart from domestic and personal affairs, yet within which the wider reality of the society was debated. The relationships of this predominantly male group could be robust, but they were looser and aerated, involving conflict and dispute. They weren’t the more intimate and personal relations of closer social affinity.
For the elite who participated in this discourse, the agonistic male discourse was counterbalanced by the mixed social realm of polite society, where feminine social virtues principally prevailed, relations were much denser, dispute would be discouraged, and the conversation was often a form of social grooming and positioning. This was a realm where women’s social leverage and skills could come to the fore.
In Twitter, we are witnessing a collapsing of the traditional manly political discourse into a more feminine polite society, with considerable tensions on both sides. In dense societies, disagreement is a threat and conversation, while frequently demonizing and ostracizing other parties, struggles to deal with the sort of difference near at hand that rougher and more aerated agonistic discourse handles much more adeptly. The aggressive arguments of men on Twitter are taken considerably more personally by women (and by the men who care about them) and are generally perceived as far more abusive than they would be were they directed at men. On the other hand, many argumentative men chafe at the regime of politeness that tends to develop in social locations where large numbers of women are present.
When the world of politics starts to be dominated by the norms of polite society in the ruling classes, preference falsifications that may fly in the elite’s Twitter feeds will start to be imposed upon the population at large, with much less positive results. Preference falsification is one thing when it offers social advancement and privilege, quite another when it is experienced as a yoke of cultural subjugation to an elite class. The rubes outside of the enlightened bubble are also much more likely to be ridiculed and despised as the smugness of polite society becomes the operating tone of politics.
Places like Twitter are becoming our Versailles, establishing progressivism’s hegemony by creating a new stifling centralized polite society under its oversight, with everyone jockeying for position by cosying up to its values, yet alienating and disempowering the rest of the population in the process. Instead of disparate regional interests entering a heterotopic realm of agonistic contestation, many parties are gathered together in a shared socially saturated environment where they conform to powerful cultural norms for the sake of their social and political survival. They are gradually being detached from their locations of origin and the disparate interests for which they once advocated. In the process, the population at large is gradually cut adrift from the political classes. The feminization of the realm of political discourse will naturally risk the tendency of closing the political class in upon itself.
Mixed social company is typically a realm of heavily falsified preferences, a place where the call to be nice and polite prevents people from expressing their full mind. The norms that drive these falsified preferences are principally established by women, as their opinions carry the greater weight in this realm. Power in the dense social arena chiefly belongs to women, as they generally form much closer relations than men can. The core social group and its membership are largely determined by women and men really need to keep on the right side of women, as their peers typically prioritize the women in their lives over the men. Like the students Haidt described earlier in this post, within this realm, women can use their greater social leverage to ‘bully’ men into silence through the threat of social ostracization or marginalization.
Tensions on the Left
Some of these gendered tensions can already be seen between the old left and the progressive left. More traditional leftist supporters of Bernie Sanders, stigmatized as ‘Berniebros’ by feminists supporting Clinton, are making the most of their delicious side-serving of schadenfreude that comes with the large and bitter main course of our new political reality. Freddie deBoer had already written at length against the progressive left’s toxic ‘politics of deference’:
Left-wing critics of contemporary progressives have often struggled to find a term to describe rhetoric or tactics they find unhelpful. Terms like “political correctness” and “identity politics” are too deeply associated with conservatism, and too clumsy, to be of much use. I have personally taken to thinking of a particular kind of misguided progressive political engagement as the politics of deference—that is, the political theory that suggests that people of a progressive bent have a duty to suspend their critical judgment and engage in unthinking support of whoever claims to speak for the movement against racism and sexism. This is the common notion that allies should “just listen.” There are all manner of problems with that attitude, first and foremost among them the question of who, exactly, we should just listen to when different members of marginalized groups disagree, as they inevitably will. But more, the notion that we should just listen asks us to forego the most basic moral requirement of all, the requirement to follow one’s own conscience. Just listening is easy, and you will find many armies of privileged people in media, academia, and the entertainment industry who have made a career out of it, coasting along with whatever the day’s progressive fads are. But just listening leaves us bereft of the kinds of ruthless self-review that are a political movement’s only defense against drift, complacency, and corruption. Just listening is self-defense; just listening is bad faith.
Of course, there is a self-reflexive element that will surely come into play here: critics of this essay will no doubt accuse me of the very bigotries that I am arguing we should be more careful in discussing. This is the tail-swallowing aspect of today’s liberal spaces, not the noble and correct prohibition against engaging in racist or sexist behavior but the meta-prohibition against questioning whether any given accusation is credible or convincing. A political tendency that prohibits its members from questioning each other, or which treats critical examination of its beliefs about bigotry as bigotry itself, has sewn the seeds of its own demise.
Following the catastrophic failure of progressivism in the election, his criticisms have a renewed urgency and appeal. Together with figures like Matt Bruenig, deBoer has represented a push for a more aggressive form of discourse, and a turn away from identitarian deference (deBoer is pessimistic about things changing within the Democratic Party, but as the country increasingly turns against them, they may be left with little choice).
The gendered character of the growing conflict on the left regarding appropriate rhetoric was exposed in part through the kerfuffle that led to Bruenig being fired from the think tank Demos. On the one hand, some well situated women weaponize institutional power to shut down or close out aggressive challenging voices and practically protect their positions from vigorous interrogation. On the other hand, some belligerent men use hostile verbal argument in a manner that renders the online experience of women a deeply unpleasant one, not least by implicitly giving much less savoury followers permission to subject women with whom they differ to explicitly misogynistic attacks.
To such figures on the left, prominent Clinton supporters like Lena Dunham reek of narcissistic bourgeois feminism. This narcissistic feminism is not only dulled to class issues, but through its preoccupation with a petty in-group associative politics, intensifies them by stigmatizing and disassociating from those outside of its class. Like the selfish housemate who leaves their computer downloading several movies while they are out and you need to make an important video call, this self-obsessed feminism also hogs the political bandwidth, preventing serious conversations from taking place.
The New Feminist Politics
As I have already emphasized, men and women don’t cease to behave like men and women simply because we have declared ourselves to be living in a gender-neutral society. If we are to understand the current shape of politics, it is imperative that we take gender seriously. We must also recognize that resistance to a woman like Hillary Clinton in power is neither unrelated to her sex, nor necessarily irrational and misogynistic.
A great many experiments to identify sexism in hiring begin with identical CVs, yet with the genders of the job applicants switched. The implicit assumption here is that, once differences in skills, aptitudes, and attainments are ruled out, two such applicants are essentially interchangeable. Of course, this is a huge assumption. For it to hold, one would have to deny the existence of any probabilistic differences between the sexes as groups in pertinent criteria, as knowledge about groups is relevant even when we are making decisions about individuals about whom we have information. As a culture we have determined that sexual difference is an irrelevancy at most, relating only to genitalia.
However, as I’ve already argued, men and women can form strikingly different forms of social relations and these different forms of social relations produce different cultures of discourse, thought, and politics. The form of feminist politics is one shaped by particular patterns of female sociality.
Feminist politics takes a more typically feminine form, majoring on the use of social leverage for feminist ends. If you think about it, the typical feminist political victory takes the form of persuading some other agency to do something or intervene on their behalf. It is a politics of empowerment and empowerment almost invariably rests upon the existence of some more fundamental power that acts as one’s patron and comes to your aid against other parties.
A politics of empowerment will differ sharply from the more historically male and oppositional cast of politics. The very nature of a politics of empowerment demands the growth of patron agencies, which accrue ever greater powers to themselves. The great gains of feminism have expanded such agencies. The expansion of the franchise was also an expansion of government’s power to act without the mediation of the family and to deal directly with new classes of dependent persons. The rising entrance of women into the workforce increased the power of capital and made the workforce more biddable and conformable.
As feminism is wedded to these agencies, it cannot very effectively stand over against them. Also, the more such agencies ‘empower’, the more they establish dependence and the greater their grip upon society. Such agencies are also frequently called to act against lesser agencies that don’t ‘empower’ women in the desired way, strengthening their dominance and enabling them to close down opposition ever more effectively.
Feminism’s logic is a great way to establish a docile workforce. It switches a more oppositional master-slave model for something closer to a mother-child model. Our sense of any underlying struggle for power between labour and capital or society and government is dulled as our problems are reframed as an issue of capital and government just not empowering us enough. However, capital and government are for the most part very happy to ‘empower’ us and give us many of the trappings of power, while keeping actual power for themselves (and gaining more power as we become more dependent upon them for our ‘empowerment’). Understandably, the character of feminist politics will cause problems for the traditional left, for whom class oppositions are important.
The more empowering patrons prevail, the more that they will tend to close down those who seek to exercise power and agency directly. This, I suspect, is disproportionately restrictive for men, in large part because the new authorities act in a more maternalist manner, smothering and pathologizing the more typical disruptive and oppositional modes of male agency. It seems to me that many of the puerile modes of male rebellion that we encounter today need to be understood against this background.
The Queen Bee
A politics of empowerment founded upon social leverage will also have the effect of dissembling power. Power becomes diffuse and unaccountable. In the more overt form of male power, there is typically a head, a prominent and exposed figure, who is held to the standards of manly agency, being personally and directly responsible and accountable for that which occurs under him and honour-bound to face and defend himself against challenge. This figure is expected to be strong, to put himself on the line, to exhibit mastery, and to act with manly honour and responsibility. This is what gives weight to his authority. He must face direct conflict and challenge and prove his suitability for office by weathering that which is thrown at him.
Hillary Clinton, however, represented a different sort of politics: the politics of the queen bee. The power of the queen bee is not the direct and accountable power of the manly leader, but a more feminine power of extreme social leverage. This power is not inconsistent with an extreme vulnerability. When people see someone challenging their queen bee, they will rapidly rally to her and fight off the threat. The queen herself is inapproachable. Her power is the hive that surrounds her, the power of her immense social leverage.
One of the reasons that many people disliked and resented Hillary Clinton was because they felt that she was being ‘forced on the public.’ This perception merits examination. Clinton was not believed to be a powerful candidate (unlike a woman such as Margaret Thatcher, who earned her epithet of the ‘Iron Lady’). Rather, she was perceived to be a candidate who was weak in terms of the conventionally manly criteria of politics, yet with immense social leverage within the Democratic Party. The power of Clinton is the power of the great Washington hive: she is the queen bee around whom they will all rally. The power of Clinton is the Democratic Party’s undermining of Sanders’ candidacy. The power of Clinton is the Clinton Foundation’s power as a concentration of political and moneyed interests. People resented Clinton because they knew that she represented and secured the unaccountable power of a hive of insider interests behind her.
Political queen bees have some considerable advantages. The diffuse character of their power means that they cannot easily be challenged or held accountable. As soon as one challenges the queen bee, people will rally around her, cutting off any direct attack. The sort of direct challenges that are part and parcel of traditional manly political engagement are perceived to be sexist when directed, even in the mildest of forms, towards women. People will not permit their queen bee to be treated as a combatant, nor to put herself on the line.
Leaders who do not exhibit traditional manly traits can be politically suspect. Their power, such that it is, must lie elsewhere. The pushing forward of women in politics can often engender suspicion in many in the population—especially among the male working classes—who recognize that the power of such leaders increasingly lies in the networks that put them forward, surround them, and protect them from direct challenge.
Men, in particular, are far more likely to trust an assertive leader who clearly demonstrates an independent strength. Such a leader can be dealt with directly. Men may find unmanly leaders emasculating, because they no longer even have the ability to look at the power that is oppressing them directly in the face or to challenge it directly. The power that holds them down has hidden itself behind the soft face of a weak leader. It shouldn’t surprise us that many women also found Clinton alienating too. The power Clinton represented to them was less the power of women as such as the power of her particular hive.
The language that surrounded Clinton’s candidacy is illuminating in several regards. Themes and sentiments of solidarity with Clinton as an individual (e.g. ‘I’m With Her’) and—now wounded—entitlement (e.g. it was her time but she was robbed) are often prominent. The queen bee’s advancement is owed to her by others, rather than something that she must obtain or fail to obtain for herself. This is because the power of social leverage is in large measure a power established by the obligations that can be placed, or the duties that lie, upon the shoulders of others.
Progressive women were profoundly emotionally invested in Clinton’s candidacy, much as many other women are emotionally invested in ‘Queen Bey’. The queen bee becomes the vehicle for her adorers’ own psychodrama. They are fixated by her and identify with her on an intimate level. Her success is inseparably intertwined with their own sense of well-being. The policies of Clinton were quite incidental to this identification: the bond with Clinton was with the very intimacy of her womanhood. Like the female worker bees in a hive who do not reproduce but raise their sisters from the queen, the feminist sisterhood can rally around and support the queen as the one who will give value to their own identities.
The Feminist Society
A politics of empowerment and a culture of victimhood go hand in hand. Just as the kid that bursts into tears and runs to their mother at the slightest provocation can use parental sanctions to empower them against others, so the feminist elevation of the rhetoric and ideology of victimhood serves to increase their social leverage (one thinks of the new mansplaining hotline that has just been set up in Sweden!). Exaggerated vulnerability can be exploited as a means to gain power. The term ‘crybully’ has been coined to describe such weaponized victimhood and vulnerability.
It also creates a context that radically stifles strong and independent agency. The more that we privilege dependency and reliance upon third parties to intervene, the more we will start to resemble infants and the more those parties will adopt a smothering hyper-maternalism. Unsurprisingly, in those places where feminist theories and practices are most influential—on college campuses—we encounter the most stifling and neurotically protective institutions of all. The feminist rhetoric of strength is almost invariably allied to a rhetoric of vulnerability and victimhood. Strength is something that must constantly be externally affirmed and validated, rather than demonstrated through confident and robust assertion (as Margaret Thatcher once remarked, “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to remind people you are, you aren’t.”).
This stifling of agency doesn’t only occur in women who must conform to the model of the victim, but in men who must constantly affirm the strength of the women around them, while never developing or exerting their own manly strengths that might threaten them. In such contexts, the natural male instinct to protect women can result in an emasculated variety of male feminist. Such a person, concerned to validate the strength of women, will push for their indiscriminate admission to all of the traditional realms of male agonism, while holding them to much lower standards and seeking to restrict any expressions of manliness that might expose the inconvenient truth.
This also poses problems for women, who often have very conflicted feelings about the new feminist male. Such a man’s care and concern for her and protectiveness of her sense of self-worth are rightly appealing and such men can definitely be a welcome presence in the coeducational environment of the college, or the modern gender-neutral workplace. Yet, the fact that such men are all too often stunted in their development of robust manliness, not least because they have been denied homosocial male places within which to play to and grow in their strengths, is deeply unattractive. The conflict between the desire for the docile feminist man and desire for the feral manliness of men whose masculinity has developed, though never been cultivated by virtue, is a tragic one (Robert Stacy McCain’s recent review of Jessica Valenti’s memoirs really exposes this ugly dynamic).
Within a feminist society it is also incredibly difficult to engage in honest and fruitful discourse. The proclaimed vulnerability of women and the unwelcome character of certain statements underlie a profound social pressure to shut down unsettling or threatening discourse. Men must self-censor, come to women’s aid by closing down non-cooperative men, establish institutions to police permitted expression, and play their part in the propagation of obliging falsehoods.
It must be stressed that the rise of feminism is in large measure in reaction against deep and sustained injustices to women and that much that it brings to the table is essential. It is also a diverse movement, which includes many voices that express similar concerns for free speech that I am articulating here. However, in its currently prevailing forms, especially on college campuses, it has introduced a number of serious problems.
The gendered relational logic that undergirds the practice of the sorts of male and female discourse I have been describing differs in crucial respects. On the male side, the manly practice of agonistic discourse upholds a standard of honour within a rule-bound exchange. The goal of the exchange is to gain honour and one gains honour by winning by the rules. Men must put themselves on the line and win by playing by the rules of discourse if they are to gain honour. Honour is lost by breaking the rules, taking unfair advantages, avoiding direct engagement, failing to present a defence for your position, and other such behaviours. One gains honour through engaging in the rule-bound encounter. If the rules are well-defined and the encounter is well ordered and refereed (ensuring that wrath or ego do not take over), the manly drive for honour can be powerfully harnessed for the service of truth.
The primary gendered virtues of typical female social interaction don’t, however, so readily lend themselves to agonistic engagements over truth. Male social values tend to affix themselves chiefly to agency (strength, mastery, honour, etc.), which can more easily be abstracted from the immediacy of persons and must be proved through struggle. Female social values (care, empathy, equality, inclusion, etc.), by contrast, tend to focus chiefly upon persons. Agonistic engagement can often be perceived as an immediate contravention of these values and truth itself can be perceived as threatening. When this occurs, all rules of engagement can be abandoned and it is the person, rather than the argument, that is attacked.
It is important that we recognize how certain prevailing forms of feminism have exploited male (protection and concern for women’s opinion) and female codes of behaviour (care, equality, empathy, etc.) to establish a context of discourse that is resistant to the operations of challenging truth. Threatening claims can be dealt with by denying the speaker a platform, by appealing to third parties for assistance in removing them, by attacking reputations and poisoning the well, by demonizing or encouraging extreme suspicion of people outside of the group, by attacking a person’s presumed tone, by characterizing all rhetorical actions as veiled and illegitimate power ploys, by getting patron parties to police the discourse so that threatening positions can’t be voiced, by using the threat of social ostracization to get people to self-censor, etc. All of these are classic feminine modes of handling social conflict.
Feminism, gender, and race theory have also become human shields that prevent us from challenging key persons, agencies, social realities, and ideas directly. These theories serve to elevate and mobilize unhelpful instincts and to close down the discourse. The ad hominem character of much feminist argumentation is a result of the failure to manage and effectively to direct or restrict natural feminine social instincts for the purpose of effective discourse. When natural instincts have not been harnessed in the service of truth, not only have they been unbroken, they have also trampled over all of the rules of reasonable discourse.
When we start to take gender seriously again, I think that we will also begin to find some clues to the psychological appeal of the alt-right. Once again, the most important thing is to pay close attention to what is right in front of us. The alt-right are, in many respects a feral masculine reaction to the stifling and emasculating culture of political and academic discourse created by feminism.
I would be interested to know more about the demographics of the alt-right. My strong suspicion is that they are predominantly college-educated men with considerable knowledge of the inner world of our polite society, but who feel suppressed and marginalized by it, perhaps especially in their masculinity. They are probably not generally rural white people, but people on the periphery of the inner circles (the regime of political correctness, for instance, is largely focused upon elite colleges), people who chafe at the progressive values they encounter there. In any society where sanctioned forms of masculinity are emasculating, there will be a tendency for young men to pursue unsanctioned and destructive forms of masculinity. The alt-right is the dysfunctional masculinity movement that the stifling maternalism of progressivism has brought upon itself.
The alt-right are attracted to journalistic organs such as Breitbart, because they have the balls to tell offensive truths. The offensive character of the truth is desirable in itself, because this serves their acting out against progressivism’s hyper-vigilant maternalism. Violating the taboos and attacking the virtues of progressivism gives them a sense of liberation from its shackles. It once more brings them into an exhilarating relation with a masculine realm where dangerous truths exist, where civilization itself is at stake, where strength and courage are imperative, where non-combatants should get off the field, where we must put ourselves on the line. Where people cannot speak openly and fearlessly about difficult truths, and favour obliging lies or self-serving half-truths instead, there will come a point when certain people will start to react the stifling of truth for the sake of niceness and safety by throwing themselves into the pursuit of the most hateful truths they can find. Favoured terms of the alt-right such as ‘cuckservative’ reveal something of the psychology of the movement. Other conservatives are cuckolds, men who have consented to their own emasculation.
Although not straightforwardly a member of the alt-right himself, within the dense social world of Twitter, Milo Yiannopoulos was their queen bee. Milo’s gay flamboyance and narcissistic fabulousness was integral to what enabled him to work. In the socially saturated world of the new online Versailles, there must be the arresting spectacle of a Sun King to command our gaze.
Nor should it surprise us that Europe’s immigration crisis swiftly became the favoured Rorschach Test for this movement. To the sentimental maternalism of progressivism, immigrants appeared purely as vulnerable victims, their eyes attracted to the young women with their terrified children. Just as a mother may fancy her infant to be incapable of any wrong, so progressives constantly resisted the idea that the new arrivals on Europe’s shores might contain a significant criminal, violent, fraudulent, and terrorist element. The alt-right, however, saw a mass of young men like themselves, a population with a similar demographic composition to an army. They saw them being welcomed into European cities by women waving affirming banners, as if they were frightened toddlers. Breitbart delivered a steady drumbeat of stories of deception, rape, violence, and terrorism by new immigrants largely unreported in the mainstream press, with their regard for the ideological taboos of effete polite society. The young male readers of the site heard a summons to a reactive masculinism, to the rejection of the norms of polite society and a return to a baser tribalism.
Once again, the cracks of the current order are becoming apparent. The maternalistic order of feminized progressivism is provoking a counter-reaction and resistance even in its own ranks. However, the forms of this counter-reaction are unsettling. Rather than a wise and measured response to a dysfunctional situation, the alt-right all too often functions as if the passenger of untamed masculine instincts.
If we are to make progress, it will not be through submission to raw and antagonistic masculinism, but in the prudent, careful construction of societies and communities of discourse that harness both male and female social strengths, while counteracting their respective weaknesses and dangers.
An important part of this development, I believe, must be found in resistance both to complete gender integration on the one hand and to extreme gendered segregation on the other. We must recover the values of manliness: the future of a truthful and free society depends upon them. We must cultivate virtuous and honourable manliness in young men and save them from the clutches of feral masculinity. This requires the establishment and preservation of realms of male homosociality, where men are cultivated into mature masculinity, not least by members of an older generation. Such realms must be jealously guarded against intrusion by those who will not acknowledge and uphold their norms (C.S. Lewis has a fascinating discussion of the danger of the colonization and eradication of male community by women in his chapter on friendship in The Four Loves). In contrast to the puerility of much male homosociality today, we must value and restore forms of male homosociality that are productive, creative, thoughtful, and holy.
Each sex needs to learn how to create a space for the other. While agonistic discourse, for instance, may represent a social location primarily created and maintained by men, chiefly operating according to male rules, it should not be an exclusively male location. Rather, men should hold this space open for women to learn this pattern of discourse and to bring their own strengths to this arena, while tempering men’s weaknesses. The same can be said of the more collaborative forms of discourse in which women can excel. Both of the sexes must become the appreciative guests and students of each other.
We must teach both men and women to value the strengths and instincts of the other sex and to accommodate themselves to each other. We must teach men to understand, to honour, and to make space for women’s social instincts and expressions and vice versa. We must restore a posture of wonder towards the other sex in their subtle yet profound differences and eschew the posture of envy. Men and women can both easily fall into the error of disdaining those behaviours and instincts in the other sex that most contrast with their own. This must be firmly resisted. Both the giggling teenage girls with their relational dramas and the belligerent and tribal boys with their various obsessions are making their first faltering steps towards what may become noble virtues and aptitudes that can serve both them and society at large greatly in the future. Both should be celebrated and taken seriously.
However, in our society, as in so many previous ones, the failure to establish a just, equitable, and good harmony between the sexes has produced crises of truth and community. Unfortunately, we largely lack the voice or the vocabulary with which to speak of our problem. Perhaps in our current fraught social and political moment, we can begin to work to restore it.